Recent program eliminations spark mistrust in Strategic Plan, administration

By Campus Editor

Following the March 23 unveiling of the Strategic Plan draft during Spring Break, posters encouraging the college community to “continue the conversation” by sharing its feedback online at the college’s Civic Commons website began appearing around campus. Several posters were vandalized shortly after, calling the administration’s commitment to feedback into question, according to Nic Ruley, an adjunct professor in the Television Department.

Vandals circled the part of the poster reading “we want your input,” and wrote “joke” above the phrase.

As reported April 6 by The Chronicle, a two-week comment period ending April 7 began immediately after the draft’s release during which college community members could comment on the plan on Civic Commons. Recent efforts led by the administration to cut budgets, reduce personnel and eliminate programs have members of the college community uncertain as to how much weight their input holds.

“There’s a level of trust that this plan is asking all of us to have that we might not all have entirely the way the people writing the plan hope,” said Elizabeth Davis-Berg, an associate professor in the Science & Mathematics Department. “Depending on how long you’ve been at Columbia, you’ve seen a variety of different things come and go that may or may not have done what they were expecting.”

From students to staff, faculty and alumni, frustrations with the recent implementation of the Strategic Plan have been expressed on all fronts of the college community. Peter Carpenter, an associate professor in the Dance Department and president of Faculty Senate, a faculty-oriented sanctioned body within the college’s governance, sent an open letter on April 9 to Stan Wearden, senior vice president and provost, that addressed faculty members’ concerns with the recent elimination of the First-Year Seminar program.

As reported March 16 by The Chronicle, Wearden and Suzanne Blum Malley, interim dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences, announced that the current First-Year Seminar program would be eliminated in favor of a new first-semester freshman course that has yet to be determined. It was a move that resulted in the termination of six full-time faculty members’ employment but aligned with objectives outlined in the Strategic Plan draft released a week later.

In the letter, Carpenter states that the timing of the elimination of First-Year Seminar prior to the release of the Strategic Plan draft has created mistrust of the administration among some faculty members.

“Because these personnel actions happened at the moment that they did, it shakes our community’s confidence in that plan,” Carpenter said. “Our goal with that letter as a Senate was to open a conversation so we could air these differences and get more rationale and information.”

The Strategic Plan draft also calls for workforce reductions, budgetary realignments and administrative hirings that have begun during the plan’s draft stages.

Nic Ruley, an adjunct professor in the Television Department, said the implementation of parts of the Strategic Plan prior to its feedback phase makes people question whether their feedback could actually influence the administration’s decisions.

“The plan should not be implemented yet because this is in the draft stages of planning,” Ruley said. “These [are] very large and broad changes without community feedback or input.”

However, the parts of the plan that are already being acted on are those that are most urgent, and going forward, community feedback will still be incorporated into the plan’s final draft, Wearden said.

“Planning is critically important, and I really believe the things we’ve taken action on are things we’ve gotten feedback on,” Wearden said. “It’s important while you’re planning not to be completely idle. It was very critical, financially speaking.” 

Another concern regarding the elimination of certain programs at the college is that the Strategic Plan’s objectives of creating new programs with similar goals demonstrates a perceived unwillingness of the administration to listen to feedback of current students, staff and faculty, said Dana Akre-Fens, a sophomore cultural studies major and a One Tribe scholar.

The One Tribe student organization—which explores issues of multiculturalism, inclusion and social justice on campus—was defunded in early April. The stipend program will not continue after this year, yet the Strategic Plan calls for efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, calling for the hiring of a vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“If it’s a money issue, choosing to cut student positions while having six new administrators that could get six-figure salaries seems unfair,” Akre-Fens said. “I want to believe that they do [have students’ best interests at heart], but right now it’s really hard to say that.”

Ruley said introducing a new vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will help with the college’s marketing strategy.

“By hiring that new position, they’ve acquired something that they can use in marketing themselves to a broader population,” Ruley said. “With One Tribe, they would have to explain what it meant. With this new VP position, they can just display it all over [and] people will think that [Columbia] has this robust commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion … when the truth is they’ve given the opposite indication.”

Akre-Fens said she does not think the Strategic Plan accurately represents Columbia students because of low student participation. Of the nearly 9,000 students that attend Columbia, only a handful of students were participating in the forums.

Fliers, posters and other forms of publicity were placed around campus advertising the Strategic Plan’s feedback phase, Wearden said.

“We did everything we could,” Wearden said. “I would have loved to have seen more student feedback, too, but I do think we did everything that we could to try to generate that.”

Akre-Fens said the Strategic Plan was written with academic rhetoric that made it inaccessible to the student population.

“The way it’s written is perfect for investors, people looking to invest time in the college, [current] administrators and new administrators,” Akre-Fens said. “It is not perfect for students. The way it was written, to me, felt cold, repetitive and like it lacked focus.” 

Another concern regarding input in the Strategic Planning Process was the timing of the feedback phase, which started over Spring Break while many students were off-campus and took place during the middle of the semester.

“They started it over Spring Break, and obviously students were away,” Davis-Berg said. “Many faculty were off doing professional development things or grading and doing [other] things on break. Also, it’s a really rough time in the semester. Spring Break, week nine and week 10—everyone knows this is the hardest month for work.”

Additionally, Davis-Berg said some faculty and staff members felt discouraged from participating in the discussions because some administrators were acting as moderators on the Civic Commons.

“It’s difficult when you have deans and administrators being moderators for faculty who are not yet tenured to say their opinions, and staff are in a much worse position than that,” Davis-Berg said. “Staff don’t have the same kind of protections. It’s good that the moderators are replying directly to questions, but if that’s someone who is going to be making a performance evaluation, I would hope what’s in the Civic Commons doesn’t affect you later.”

According to a staff source who requested anonymity because of a fear of reprisal, many other staff members are afraid to give negative feedback because of similar fears.

“The staff is in the middle of this giant job reclassification study … and supposedly no one’s going to lose their job from it, but at the same time the college has already violated our Memorandum of Understanding in other regards to this study,” the source said. “There is a sense of foreboding about participating.”

According to Wearden, nobody is at risk of losing employment at the college as a result of their feedback.

The source said moderator participation in the discussions has dwindled since the first feedback phase of the Strategic Planning process. In some forums, moderators did not participate at all or ceased participation shortly into the feedback phase.

“It is telling [that] during the first go round we had with this, there was a very robust moderator presence in the panels, and that does not seem to be the case this time,” the source said. “A lot of the moderators are saying it’s all for show, that the administration has their plan in place for the most part, and they’re trying to give us the show of feedback so they don’t get [resistance].”

All comments in the Civic Commons website are being reviewed and feedback will be incorporated into the plan, according to Blum Malley,  who served on the Strategic Plan Steering Committee and in the Strategic Plan writing group.

“There are things that we need to make more clear [in regards to] what was being said or the timeline as well as some things that were missing that maybe the steering committee at that point wasn’t thinking about that somebody pointed out,” Blum Malley said. “It does not mean, however, that every comment ends up appearing in the draft.”

Blum Malley said it is important for the college community to understand that the Strategic Plan is meant to be a “living document,” and the college’s courses of action regarding the plan will be revisited even in its final stages.

“It’s not written in stone, so even though the feedback phase is over, there should be a continual process of feedback,” Blum Malley said. 

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